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January 23, 2023

Shelter

By Ian C. Smith

Shelter

We moved into a house within the grounds of a psychiatric hospital where the fine Australian poet, Francis Webb, was incarcerated many years earlier in rural NSW, its streets bordered by majestic European trees. My wife had accepted a key managerial position in the health service. I buzzed with a fervour to write, so preferred privacy, no next-door neighbours, while I looked after our toddlers, the terms 'biological clock', and 'house-husband' neologisms to me then.

Using a backpack and pusher, I took our boys for walks around and across the central golf course, balls sometimes cracking over our fence into the backyard, or under elms, past wards where a middle-aged man sat outside waving a grubby teddy bear, addressing us, voice guttural, unintelligible, his large pale penis erect as I increased the pusher's pace.

Ominous resentment seemed to surround the hospital, miasmic despite the English village postcard effect. Motorised groundsmen stared from a distance. When I approached them about something they shared sly glances, monosyllabic, ignorantly difficult. I thought at first these sullen men meeting my politeness with antagonism were patients allowed to work, and I felt the presence of our laughing children exacerbated their pique.

Needing to understand the reason I became a bit paranoid in my sheltered world of the imagination. Was it my wife's managerial position? Did they know I wrote, so the vanity of this? Was it about a man caring for infants, or the time we asked them not to spray weedkiller around the edges of our yard where the boys romped? I wondered if all these reasons became enlarged in their collective psyche. I also remembered tough times when their pleasant work would have been a godsend. My wife simply said it was because they had to go out to work and I didn't.

When I passed professionals, easily identifiable by their smart appearance, they avoided eye contact. I dressed roughly, cut my own hair, knew they saw me as a trusted patient. I like being left alone, even ignored, so this guise both suited and amused me.

Passing the wards, 1930s brick softened by those trees austerely impressive, some closed due to asbestos, I heard eldritch screams, tantrums, saw damp bedding dropped from a high window, but mostly the loneliness of its eerie quiet chilled as every turn, every building, made me feel trapped in misery, even the neat collections of beer bottles and tops around bases of tree trunks. The more I walked, the more I sorrowed. The more I sorrowed, the less I wrote.

Not understanding future's nostalgic gusts I searched for echoes of Webb, possibly Australia's most spiritual poet, but felt only an absence of happiness, believing his melancholia would have become entrenched in wretchedness there. When the time came to leave, although glad, I also experienced a sense of loss accompanying the end of this, one of many periods in my strange life. Always finding endings difficult, I wondered if Webb, stubbornly writing, recalled hopes, wishes, happier days, ended.






Article © Ian C. Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-01-31
Image(s) are public domain.
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